Wednesday, 4 May 2011

NPCs - The Good, The Bad and The Indifferent.

Copyright © TSR Games.

As 'Non Player Characters' (NPCs) go, I would place them into three distinct types:

  1. Good / helpful / companions.
  2. Neutral / helpful / hindering / plot-pushers.
  3. Bad / evil / obstructive / back-stabbing.

I tend to throw a good mix of 'neutral' type, with a scattering of the 'bad'.  If I feel the party are struggling somewhat, especially in the combat aspect, I might introduce one or two of the 'good'.
Ideally, you do not want to detract from the players feeling that they are the ones forging ahead and pushing the storyline.  There's nothing worse than a table of players sitting back and relying on the NPCs to get them out of a tight spot - asides from having the party use your lovingly created NPC as a trap trigger or mob-fodder.

The real trick, when introducing a 'long term' NPC, is to be subtle about it.  Being full-on will only give your hand away and have the players' mindset slip into that, 'Great, mob-fodder!' mode.  Introduce them appropriately, and by that I mean, ensure the scenario of the 'chance meeting' or introduction isn't blatant and in your face, but a slightly more subtle affair.  Give little away to begin with, as you would in real life.

Imagine, if you will, the scene: (for this example I shall use Tarl and Grudge)

'After a messy run in with a local money lender and his two hulking bodyguards, Tarl and Grudge are now penniless and stuck in a strange town.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, appears an gleaming, armour-clad warrior with a blonde flick and flashing white teeth.
  "Have no fear, young friends, I shall help you to regain your hard-earned gold!"  
And with that, he chases after the money lender and bodyguards.  Tarl and Grudge exchange looks, shrug and trot along behind.  As they turn into the alleyway, the gleaming warrior is stood atop three bodies, money purse in hand, teeth dazzling in the stinking sunlit alleyway.
Tarl and Grudge exchange sly, knowing looks, accept the money pouch and lead their new 'friend' away, explaining that they have another 'problem' that needs addressing with his help as the warrior babbles off a list of skills and achievements resume style.'

Now the sensible approach:

'  "And let that be a lesson te yer!" The money lender's yellowed and brown stained teeth display themselves before being snatched away with a turn of a fat, bulbous head.  One of the two hulking bodyguards spits at the feet of the two young friends, and turns to follow his employer.  The mocking laughter drifts back to the frustrated and enraged companions, who now stand penniless and destitute within an unfamiliar town.
A solitary figure detaches itself from the shadows of a nearby alleyway entrance and approaches the two friends.
  "I know how you must be feeling," the stranger stands several feet away, regarding them warily.
Tarl and Grudge turn towards the stranger's voice.  "And who are you to be eaves dropping on people's conversations?"  Tarl cannot hide the anger in his voice.  Grudge grasps the handle of his battleaxe.
Hands held up in a peaceful manner, the stranger hastily adds, "I too have been robbed by that fat bastard and his bullyboys.  That was three days since, and I've been following them each day after, hoping for an opportunity to reclaim my money."
  "What does that have to do with us?" Grudge's heavily accented words resonated off the dirty, ivy covered walls of the small quadrangle in which they stood.
  "It would seem opportunity and the fates have brought us together."
Tarl sized up the stranger quickly, "Are you suggesting we combine our numbers and take back our money?"
  "Indeed.  Three is better than two and far greater than one."  Cautiously, the stranger steps forward, holding out his right hand in the traditional warrior's greeting of peace, "I am called Kaleb." '

From that moment on there is an element of unity, but also a hint of uncertainty -

Can they trust him?  Is it a trap?  Could they kill him if need be?  Should they also rob him afterwards?

You can guarantee one or more of the players will be thinking one, if not all of these things.

As a DM it is your job to act out the NPC's personality and earn the players' trust.  Prove that the NPC is of value to the group dynamic, and I do not mean as the favoured 'point man' in any dangerous situation.  You have to be patient - by that I mean do not go blurting out all the NPC's secrets, skills and abilities within the initial session.  In fact, only reveal things in drips and drabs, as you do with new friends in your everyday real life - prove to the party that this NPC is a valued asset, a member of the team, one of the family, and to lose him/her would be a tragedy.

Before now, I have had well established NPCs within the party become lost, trapped or captured, and the players have gone to great extremes in order to rescue said NPC.  In many ways, players can often become more attached to an NPC than they do their own character, and when that happens, you know, as a DM, you have done your job well.

Playing A Non Player Character
  1. Don't Be Embarrassed - easier said than done, especially if you are me.  Embrace the moment when you have to stand up and give a speech or curse the player's with venom.  Make such moments memorable for both yourself, and especially, the players.  After twenty years of running an ongoing rp campaign, I know it works wonders ... in moderation, of course.
  2. Flesh Out The NPC - keep filing cards with NPC details, such as physical description, gender, religion (if any), political persuasion (if any), habits, accent (if applicable), personal items carried (including a certain amount of coinage), any weapons carried, skills & abilities, clothing/armour worn.  Also a good idea to jot down on the NPC card whom, out of the party, the NPC likes, dislikes, trusts and does not trust, etc ... saves making embarrassing cock-ups in continuity, for which I am extremely guilty of.
  3. Do Not Play Yourself - difficult to do, but keep your own thoughts and feelings out of the NPC's thoughts and feelings.  For example, if the NPC is faced with a choice you know you wouldn't make personally, choose as the NPC would, and not how you would.  Difficult, but you'll get the hang of it.  If, you as a DM, dislikes a player character - and it happens - do not allow that to spill over into an NPC, as it will become all too apparent very quickly that you are influencing decisions made by the NPC purely based on your personal thoughts/feelings, etc.  This will only lead to players distrusting every NPC the DM controls, which makes for a shite game all round.
  4. Have Fun - DM's need to have fun too.  So use the NPCs as your chance to do some rpg proper.  Before you know it, you'll have a very believable set of NPCs at your command, and a very happy bunch of players too.  The only thing that separates DMs from players, is that we are bigger control freaks, but even control freaks need time out.


  1. Ensure your NPCs are kitted to the same level,or slightly less, than the party members.
  2. Give an equal share of treasure/loot/items to the NPCs.
  3. Give the NPCs a voice - if something goes against the NPC character, make sure the party are aware of it.  If you've gone to the trouble of writing it down on the NPC card, STICK TO IT!
  4. Be aware that NPCs die, sometimes unexpectedly.  Accept it and roll with it (no pun intended).  Continuity MUST be maintained, no matter how gutting the loss of your favourite NPC can be.
  5. Be aware that playing an NPC can be an emotional experience if you've put your heart and soul into breathing life into their personality and they have been with the party for a long time - this is where I refer you back to point #4.
  6. Keep a box of tissues to hand - this is where I refer you back to points #4 & 5.  You might laugh, but don't say I didn't warn you (and if this never happens, fire yourself as a DM, as you're a callous bastard).

  1. Get precious about an NPC to the point where it becomes you vs the players.  You'll go to DM hell.
  2. Equip the NPC/s with a much higher standard of equipment/armour than the party members, or you will find that at the first chance to let said NPC/s die, the party will do just that and loot the bodies.
  3. Give NPCs a seemingly endless supply of gold - I refer you to point #2.
  4. Piss off the party members un-necessarily, or frequently - I refer you to point #2.
  5. Make the NPC/s the fountain of all knowledge.  Keep it real, or do I have to refer you to point #2 again?
  6. Make the NPC/s the heroe/s in every encounter or tight situation.  Once in a while, fine.  Remember: spread the love.
  7. Allow an NPC to become a player's lap dog.  This just undermines you as a DM and looks like you are playing favourites, and something 'nasty' could end up happening to that particular NPC ... *cough, cough, #2!*
  8. Have more NPCs than there are player characters.  It's a bitch to orchestrate as a DM and you end up feeling like a severe schizophrenic by the end of the session.

You find one or more of the NPCs are becoming nothing more than a shuffling sword carrier and pack mule with nothing to say or add to the party dynamic (basically redundant), then sadly they have outstayed their usefulness to the group dynamic.

Should this occur, as a DM you have several options, depending on the location of the party within the game world:

  • Have them go out in a blaze of NPC glory.
  • Create an unexpected twist and turn them against the party (and active NPCs) - I refer you to 'Don't #2'
  • Drop them off at the nearest outpost, village, town, city.  This is possibly one of the better options, as it sets up a point of contact for future scenarios where said NPC can be a valued source of intel, especially if they have since established themselves as a tavern keeper or respected trades person.
  • Have them turn on the party AND escape.  Sometimes good to have a side quest ongoing with the party wanting nothing more than to nail the NPC/s to a tree.  Also, if more than one NPC is being involved, allowing the party to locate them one by one in different regions/places over a period of time just adds flavour to the whole rp sessions.
  • Have them 'mysteriously' disappear over night.  They could have deserted the party and taken things not belonging to them - then the hunt is on!  Or just have them leave the party during the night in a quiet manner, leaving behind a scribble on parchment explaining why (possibly they feared Don't #2?), or maybe something took them during their turn at watch.

Can An NPC Drive?  Hell, Yes!
I have one NPC for whom I have such fondness I cannot begin to put it into words.

His name is 'Kazrath', or at least that is the common name he travels by.  On his own plane he is called U'targ, a Demon Lord with vengance in his blackened heart and torture on his mind, and my players were the lucky recipients of his attentions.

Having taken a mortal shell to conduct his campaign of vengance upon the surface world, U'targ discovered limitations as to what he could achieve, mainly due to the fact he was operating via an avatar on an alien plane of existence. So to this end his used his limited, yet still powerful, abilities to create a following of zealots, fanatics and agents of destruction to carry out his bidding without question.

Unfortunately for the player characters, part of a 'job' they performed put pay to one of Kazrath's (U'targ's avatar) major machinations, thus placing them on his 'to do' list.

Such a wonderful BBGNPC - Big Bad Guy Non Player Character - that the players never encountered in person, but had plenty of meetings with henchmen, agents and fanatics controlled by Kazrath.  The players' greatest nemesis came in two forms:

  1. Drakkys - Kazrath's second in command on the earth plane.  Near impossible to kill as his body is covered in protective tattoos, plus his beating heart, along with his soul, is kept in a container crafted from the darkest of U'targ's powers and hidden away somewhere safe.  Destroy this container and Drakkys would be no more.  *NB - this idea was in use way before J.K.Rowling's 'Harry Potter' novels and the mention of horcruxes, before anyone thinks of making comparisons.*
  2. The Grey Assassins - Kazrath's private army of specially created stone golems.  Each containing the living heart ripped from the chest of a mortal assassin, either captured by Kazrath's fanatics or sometimes handed to the fanatics as punishment (usually for a failed contract) by the Assassins Guild.  These grey shadows of doom take on the physical appearance of a man coloured with the likeness of stone.  They have all the skills of the former assassin whose heart beats within their stone body, with the horribly efficient unarmed combat skills increased ten fold.  They can punch and kick through walls and doors as if they were nothing but mist.  Combine that with their innate ability to make themselves virtually invisible, and you have a nightmare in your midst. Just the mere mention of the Grey Assassin name filled the players with a dread and fear for their character's lives.

Kazrath became an obsession for the players and was a constant throughout the years of my campaign.  A driving force.  But one that was not used constantly.  The group could go months without word of Kazrath, and then suddenly there it was, and like pack dogs on the scent, the players were away and hunting - and sometimes running from - the minions of Kazrath.

To this end, I can happily state that U'targ, a.k.a. Kazrath still lives and awaits the day he can lay his hands upon the flesh of those party characters, but sadly, that day will never come.  My table is now empty and all that is and was now sits in a darkened box sat upon a shelf.

But maybe, just maybe one day ...

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